Trotsky: a biography, By Robert Service<br />Conspirator: Lenin in Exile, By Helen Rappaport

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The Independent Culture

Robert Service, one of our finest historians of Soviet Russia, has written the first full-length biography of Trotsky in English for over half a century. He makes no secret of his antipathy to Communism, yet regards Trotsky as one of the most influential figures of the 20th century, whose diatribes against Stalin and eventual assassination by Stalinist agents turned him into a political martyr.

After Lenin, Trotsky was the most important leader of the Bolshevik revolution of 1917. A hero to the Russian masses, he had decided views about communist strategy, and believed Stalin had sabotaged the worker's revolution by confining it to one country. In Trotksy's view, Stalin was the "gravedigger of the revolution" and a "bureaucratic ignoramus". However, if Trotsky had been the Soviet leader instead of Stalin, he too would have been an arch-bureaucrat, says Service. The Soviet Union required a deeply authoritarian administration in order to quell dissent, and Trotsky was not known for his soft heart.

Stalin, with his customary cruelty, arranged for Trotsky's death. "Death solves all problems", the dictator declared. "No man, no problem." In August 1940 Trotsky was hunted down in his Mexican exile and finally eliminated. He was at work in his study when Ramon Mercador, a Spanish-born Stalinist, asked him if he would read over some political tracts. Trotsky agreed, and as he leant over was dealt a fatal blow across the head. He died in hospital the following day, aged 60.

Leon Trotsky was born Lev Bronstein in southern Ukraine on 26 October 1879. His parents were wealthy assimilated Jews, who instilled a love of books and provided Hebrew instruction. The family's Jewish identity was not that strong; if they celebrated the most important festivals, it was less to worship God than to gather relatives. Like many emancipated Russian Jews they recoiled from orthodox Hasidim, whose side-locks, kaftans and Yiddish they considered backward tribal marks.

Trotsky himself regarded his Jewishness as an irrelevance. Yet he was unavoidably shaped by Judaism and its fierce moral parables of deliverance and survival. A disproportionate number of Jews lent their support to the uprising against the Romanov monarchy in 1917. Communism provided them with a weapon against oppression and a vindication for the derision and pogroms their parents had suffered under the Tsars. Service shows how young Russian men and women trained in the rigours of the Torah found a "congenial secular orthodoxy" in Marxist hair-splitting. Like Trotsky, they thought of the promised Soviet paradise as "ours" rather than "theirs".

In 1918, as People's Commissar for War, Trotsky helped to found the Red Army and became its de facto commander. His aversion to sentimentality enabled him to cultivate the Bolshevik virtue of tverdost or hardness. Hardness was indeed the Bolshevik way, yet Tolstoy was often charming and, according to contemporaries was admired by women for his dash and self-ironical humour, as well as his occasionally wicked acid tongue. As an orator too he was matchless; and as a literary stylist he was equalled only by Churchill, Service claims.

Initially, Trotsky had approved of Stalin's promotion to Party General Secretary in 1922. Yet he came to see the Georgian-born vozhd (leader) as a man with a callous disregard for human life and ambitions to ally himself with Hitler. Underlying Stalin's strategy of persecution and annihilation was the principle – inherited from Lenin – that enemies were more useful to Soviet power than friends. Stalin's power was proportional to the extent of the enemy threat, whether it was the kulaks or Lenin's heir apparent, Leon Trotsky.

In 1929, having branded Trotsky a "traitor" to the Revolution, Stalin hounded him out of the Soviet Union. In 1937, following exile in Turkey and elsewhere in Europe, Trotsky arrived in Mexico. The first attempt on his life occurred on 24 May 1940: twenty armed Stalinists stormed his house then threw grenades at it. Trotsky and his wife Natalia survived, huddling under the bed; a bullet fired at their sleeping grandson passed through his mattress and merely grazed him. Miraculously Trotsky received no more than scratches to his face from flying glass. Next time it would be the blunt end of an ice pick.

The purpose of the raid was not just murder but arson. The bullets were intended for Trotsky; the incendiary bombs for his personal papers, which contained damaging allegations about Stalin's Great Terror of 1936-38.

This is an excellent life of a vain, brilliant, in many ways unpleasant man. If the writing is not always elegant, the story is engagingly told.

Late Victorian England, with its rituals of roast beef and empire, was grimly inimical to social change, yet Lenin sought refuge there while on the run from Tsarist Russia. In 1902 in London he acted as guide to Trotsky, and gained his protégé access to the British Museum, where Karl Marx had worked half a century earlier. Lenin also showed Trotsky round London's poor Jewish community north of Whitechapel Road, a bustling immigrant centre since the 1880s, when Hasidic Jews escaped there from the pogroms in Tsarist Russia. In Lenin's day the area served as an asylum for international socialists and dreamers of every stripe.

Helen Rappaport, the Oxford-based Russianist, has written a spirited history of Lenin's life in exile, which provides an unfamiliar view of the revolutionary as a fugitive. For 17 years until 1917 Lenin lived a hand-to-mouth existence, moving from one shabby boarding house to another, his long-suffering wife Nadezhda Krupskaya in toe. Under the alias of William Frey he dodged Tsarist spies in Finland, France and Switzerland, and settled briefly above a pub in Islington. Diligently researched, Conspirator moreover conjures a vivid picture of Russian émigré life in the early 1900s and the political landscape of Europe on the eve of revolution.

Ironically, the myth of England as a bastion of civil liberties and a shelter for refugees continued to survive long into the Stalinist era, when Soviet dissidents fled to these shores from the monster Trotsky and Lenin had helped to create. By the time of his death in 1953, Stalin himself had become a Jew-hater of near Hitlerite persuasion. Jews, in his view, were a supranational sect inimical to the Russian race and motherland. In short, like his hated Trotsky, they were "cosmopolitan".

Ian Thomson's biography of Primo Levi is published by Vintage; his account of Jamaica, 'The Dead Yard', by Faber & Faber